Archives: 09/2009

Hey G-20! Here’s How You Curb Protectionism

Last week I recommended reading a new paper published by the Lowy Institute in Australia, which proposes an utterly sensible reform for the G-20, if curbing protectionism is a serious aim.

Using Australia’s own successful experience as an example, the authors recommend other countries adopt “domestic transparency” programs, which would essentially include analysis from an independent, apolitical board or agency that measures the real costs and benefits of proposed trade restrictions.

The findings of these independent reviews would be accessible to the public—and probably published in newspapers and other popular media—in advance of any decision to impose or reject the proposed trade restrictions. The findings wouldn’t legally bind the authorities to take any particular action, but would help chase from the shadows the real costs of protectionism, so that those ultimately making the decision know that the public at large is aware of the costs.

When a politician knows that he/she can benefit politically by imposing import duties, the costs of which are hidden in higher prices paid by consumers, who are unlikely to make the causal connection, there is a profound asymmetry of incentives and disincentives. The politician is much more likely to choose to secure the political benefit of imposing duties since the costs are hidden. But if light is shone on those costs, through domestic transparency initiatives, that asymmetry is reduced or eliminated. Politicians, under these circumstances, can go back to the special interests and say how much they’d like to help out with a tariff, but the costs don’t justify the measure. And the protection-seekers know the politician’s hands are tied because the public is aware of those costs.

Well, Alan Mitchell of the Australian Financial Review on Monday supposed how the presence of a domestic transparency regime would have affected President Obama’s tire tariff decision. It is very instructive:

The case of the Chinese tyres provides a striking example. The action was taken under a section of the US Trade Act popularly known as the “China-specific safeguard” provision. The act allows increased import duties if the imports cause, or even just threaten, material injury to US producers. If material injury is identified, the president must take action against the imports unless he determines that the “provision of such relief is not in the national economic interest.”

 The US International Trade Commission (ITC) publicly advises the president on the issue of material injury, and on the level of trade barriers needed to stop it, but not on the question of the national economic interest.

The president is left to determine that for himself. And the public is aware of nothing but the ITC-endorsed case for protection….

Suppose the ITC had been asked to also publicly advise the President on whether action against Chinese tyres was in the national economic interest. There is no doubt about what its advice would have been. The duties on Chinese tyres will save some jobs among US producers of low-cost tyres, but at the price of propping up uneconomic producers, and at the cost of jobs lost among US tyre retailers and in other sectors of the economy….

Had the ITC advised that action was against the national economic interest, the President would have been in a much stronger position to reject the demand, if he had wanted to. He may not have wanted to, of course….

The US action against Chinese tyres was initiated by a complaint from the unions that are an important part of Obama’s support base. But even if Obama had protected the tyre makers against the advice of the ITC, an important blow still would have been struck against protectionism. The American people would have heard the truth from an unimpeachable source: the protection of inefficient tyre makers is against the US economic interest….

It would have been a small but important step towards educating and changing public opinion. And, without that, multilateral trade reform will never gain the domestic political support it needs to bring down trade barriers in agriculture and services.

This is what could have been had ”domestic transparency” already been embraced in the United States.  See the point in such a reform?

The Strategic Corporal

Retired Generals Charles Krulak and Joseph Hoar have an op-ed over at the Miami Herald making some important arguments against using “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Krulak served as Commandant of the Marine Corps and Hoar served as CENTCOM Commander. CENTCOM is short for Central Command, the regional military command responsible for the Middle East.

Krulak and Hoar endorse the Interrogation Task Force’s recommendation that all future detainee interrogations be conducted within the guidelines in the Army Field Manual on Interrogation. In doing so, they make a point that may be difficult to see unless you have been a leader in the military: condoning torture, or any mistreatment of prisoners, erodes discipline in a military organization.

Rules about the humane treatment of prisoners exist precisely to deter those in the field from taking matters into their own hands. They protect our nation’s honor.

To argue that honorable conduct is only required against an honorable enemy degrades the Americans who must carry out the orders. As military professionals, we know that complex situational ethics cannot be applied during the stress of combat. The rules must be firm and absolute; if torture is broached as a possibility, it will become a reality. Moral equivocation about abuse at the top of the chain of command travels through the ranks at warp speed.

Krulak is no stranger to this topic. In a 1999 article, The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War, Krulak highlighted the difficulty of deploying to low-intensity conflicts and the challenges that enlisted Marines (and soldiers) will face. In a single conflict, a unit could be engaged in humanitarian aid on one block, quelling a riot on the next, and fighting pitched urban combat on the third. Small units led by a corporal may have to take on captain-sized problems. Krulak stressed the importance of leadership and character at the lowest level so that when an officer is not present, low-level leaders will act with the necessary initiative and decision-making skills. The cornerstone for all of this is character.

Honor, courage, and commitment become more than mere words. Those precious virtues, in fact, become the defining aspect of each Marine. This emphasis on character remains the bedrock upon which everything else is built. The active sustainment of character in every Marine is a fundamental institutional competency – and for good reason.

Torture apologists may be found aplenty inside the Beltway, but those who have worn the uniform know better.

The “Read the Bill” Debate and Government Growth

There’s an interesting back-and-forth over at the Volokh Conspiracy about whether legislators should have to read the actual legislative text of bills they vote on. Most people’s intuitive reaction is: “Duh, of course!” But if you’ve ever actually spent time poring over legislative text, you know that reading the bill itself seldom leaves you with a very good sense of what it does. Legislation is typically a tangle of modifications along the lines of “Strike paragraph 2, replace the period with a semicolon, insert the word ‘reasonable’ in the following sentence…”—which is why legislators have staffers who prepare plain-English summaries of the effects of legislation. Now certainly it would be possible to render bills somewhat more readable to ordinary people. Saving paper is not a huge concern in the digital era, so there’s no good reason legislation couldn’t simply contain the full text of the statutory provisions it amended, perhaps including a side-by-side comparison highlighting the changes. Even this, however, wouldn’t necessarily be all that illuminating. I’ve got a reference book on my desk that contains the 80-or-so pages of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and then a few hundred pages explaining what it actually means. It’s not enough to know what the verbatim text says; you need to understand how it interacts with other statutes, how key terms are defined in the law, how courts have interpreted the law’s provisions, and so on.

Legislation could be written in a somewhat more transparent way, but in light of all these complex interactions, it can’t actually be that much more transparent, for the same reason computer programs are a lot longer and more impenetrable than a plain-English description of what the program does. Achieving a result in a complex rule-based system requires a level of precision and sensitivity to how terms are used within the system that’s at odds with colloquial description. Of course, for precisely the same reason that summaries will give an ordinary person a better understanding of a law than scrutiny of the verbatim text, they also give a very incomplete understanding. An ordinary language description will tell you what a computer program is supposed to do. If you want to know whether it’s going to crash or open up a security vulnerability under certain conditions, perhaps when it interacts with other software running simultaneously, you need to have a look at the source code. Again, if you’ve spent any time digging through legislation, you know that the staff summary of a bill often glosses over many interesting little details and ambiguities you can ferret out while reading the text.

Most legislators, of course—even those with legal training—cannot possibly have the kind of expertise needed to undertake meaningful scrutiny of the details of legislative text outside a tiny number of issue areas. So does it make sense to insist that every member of Congress literally “read the bill”? Probably not. The actual text will contain important details not captured in a summary, but only an expert will really understand what those are on the basis of the text anyway. Crucially, this is not a function of needless obscurantism on the part of Congress: it is a necessary feature of legislation in a legal system as complex as ours. Which means that there’s a pretty basic tension between the value of democratic transparency and a large, complex government. Past a certain point, it’s more or less impossible for any individual legislator—let alone ordinary citizens—to really understand the vast majority of bills Congress takes up in any detailed way.

Transparent Health Care Legislating?

Will Americans get “quality time” with proposed health care legislation before it passes?

Some say no: The Senate Finance Committee recently turned back an effort to put Chairman Max Baucus’ bill online for 72 hours before the committee’s vote. The Committee is on the wrong side of history.

Transparency shifts power away from the center, so it’s favored by those out of power. It’s no wonder that Republican representative John Culberson, a member of the minority party, is putting H.R. 3400 (a significant health care bill) online for comment, using a tool called SharedBook.

Transparency won’t be a gift from government. It is something we have to take. That’s why I think the action lies in private efforts like OpenCongress, GovTrack, and (my own) WashingtonWatch.com. (Links are to sites’ H.R. 3400 pages.)

The public has a way of conforming their expectations to what’s possible, and transparent law-making is entirely possible today. Closed processes like the Senate Finance Committee’s consideration of health care legislation will not satisfy the public, and it will emerge from the committee with one strike against it irrespective of the merits.

NYT: We Don’t Deserve First Amendment Protection!

I assume others have pointed this out already, but there’s something very odd about a Tuesday editorial in The New York Times arguing that campaign finance regulations that stifle the political speech of corporations must be upheld in the Citizens United case currently under consideration before the Supreme Court:

The question at the heart of one of the biggest Supreme Court cases this year is simple: What constitutional rights should corporations have? To us, as well as many legal scholars, former justices and, indeed, drafters of the Constitution, the answer is that their rights should be quite limited — far less than those of people.

In that case, surely it’s time to revisit some of the 20th century’s seminal free speech rulings. The idea that public figures cannot use libel law to squelch criticism unless they can prove an attack is intentionally or recklessly false, for instance, comes to us by way of New York Times Company v. Sullivan—a case in which the so-called “protected speech” was a paid advertisement run by a filthy corporation!  And what about the celebrated Pentagon Papers case, in which the Court found that only in the most extreme cases can the government resort to “prior restraint” of speech? Why that’s New York Times Company v. United States. In both cases, of course, the speech in question had political significance—perhaps even the potential to affect elections. In the Pentagon Papers case, by the way, the counsel for the Times was famed First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, who also argued Citizens United.

Don’t worry, though, it’s only corporations like The New York Times that will lose speech protections.  If you, as a brave individual, want to say something controversial on your blog—though you’ll probably want to do it on a server you own personally, just in case—you’re totally in the clear. And if the federal government decides to sue, you’ll be totally free to use as much of your personal savings as you want to fight back.